Notes on Colonialism

Leong Yew, Research Fellow, University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore


What is (or was) colonialism? Some of the documents appearing in Colonialism: Political and Historical Contexts demonstrate that depending on time, place, and situation, the meaning of "colonialism" is unsettled and discursive. The terms "colony" and "colonialism" capture the spirit of this discursiveness because of the different vintages to which they belong. Separated, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, by some 500 years, the mid-14th century "colonye" was used to describe the Roman colonia, while colonialism emerged around the 19th century to reify a European practice that was becoming prevalent across the world. The description of the Roman experience of settling, creating outposts, or occupying lands outside the Roman city-state seems distant enough, however, the British appropriation of "colony" retains inflections of the Roman empire while propounding ardently on Britain's unique involvement in imperialism. Hence "colonialism" attains an historical specificity, noting particularly the impact it had and continues to have on all societies across the world.

As mentioned in The Metaphorical Use of Colonialism and Related Terms, colonialism only recently attained its perjorative connotation, particularly through the reaction against the exploitation of and imposition of Western culture on native populations during European imperialism. While this is certainly a valid point to make, it is equally important to remember that for postcolonialism, the term "colonialism" is a matter of political struggle. The French and British practiced different styles of colonization, had different perceptions of the colonial subjects they came to rule, yet postcolonial politics seems to have a similar take on the totalization and oppressiveness of colonialism. The issue here is not so much the necessity of establishing elemental truths about what exactly colonialism is or was. These truths are merely contingent to the larger project of creating different modes of expression, of speaking from a liminal or marginal position, and to write against the flow of imperial culture.

For postcolonialism, "colonialism" revolves around a number of strategic reinterpretations. First, colonialism goes beyond the simple process of creating colonies. It is more effectively appreciated through the way it leads to the movement of peoples across the world, the ensuing sense of dispossession and displacement by large numbers of them, and the continuing legacy manifested in the way "sovereign" political communities emerged at the end of the second world war. While European colonialism first took place in the form of settlement colonies, this was enough to constitute the starting point of postcolonialism (see Ashcroft et al.) Settlement meant a number of things: the displacement of native populations and the inculcation of a European worldview on them; the exile of white settlers such as through the transportation of convicts; and the transplantation of other non-native peoples through slavery and indentured labour. These forms of diaspora hinged around cascading levels of marginality and perceptions of the relations between centre and periphery. For instance, while white settlers felt rejected and inferior to their kin in the motherland, they retained alternative hierarchical structures in their colonies based on racial, gender, and class divisions. Hence for the people affected by colonialism, the type of postcolonial culture they produced varied markedly.

While it is important to think of colonialism as part of the experience of creating real or physical colonies, the effects of colonization have had much more profound legacies that do not go away even when the a given colony has moved on to a different form. On the one hand colonialism cannot "officially" end because there can be no reversion to pre-colonial societies. In effect what passes -- in a rudimentary way -- as the end of colonialism has often been recognized as sovereignty or the gaining of independence. But the communities that result are already grossly distorted, forged through the transmigration into its borders as consequence of colonialism. On the other hand colonialism has also become more manichean, reappearing in one form as neo-colonialism, while also persisting in the discourse used in these societies. For example, critics who stress on the latter point see imagination, language, culture, and even the mind as still colonized by the West. These are important assertions to make because they raise the issue of how far a subject can truly distance himself or herself from the totalizing embrace of colonial discourse. Such arguments have been put forward by contemporary critics (see Pieterse and Parkeh) as well as anti-colonial writers like Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi.

However fluid and contested the definition of "colonialism," one must take into consideration the political issues that are at stake. Much of postcolonial culture mentioned in the Postcolonial Web and elsewhere stem from these implications of colonialism, capturing two competing emotions. One of these is the ability of postcolonial literature be critical about these different forms of colonialism, and to mobilize a set of strategies to write against it. The other is a lingering sadness resulting from the pervasiveness of colonialism and its continued hold on cultural production.

Related Works

[Postcolonial Web Overview] [Postcolonial Discourse Overview] 

Last Modified: 6 June, 2002